No more asking nicely: give us affordable housing – The Mountaineer

A rash of apartment, townhome and subdivision construction both underway and on the horizon in Waynesville is about to top 1,100 new units since 2019, but most have fallen short when it comes to addressing the affordable housing crisis.

These new developments may be chipping away at the shortage of inventory. But with the tiniest of townhomes topping $400,000 and rent for a one-bedroom apartment in these new complexes clocking in at $1,100, the deficit of affordable housing persists.

“There is a sense that all this development is happening, but working people can’t afford it. What’s the tipping point if you create a town that people can’t afford to live in?” posed Elizabeth Teague, Waynesville’s chief planner and development services director.

That concern has prompted the Waynesville planning board to roll up its sleeves and get creative.

The planning board is floating the idea of an affordable housing requirement for major developments. The proposal would require developers to set aside a certain percentage of new units as affordable.

“Market rate development right now is so out of scale with peoples’ incomes, we have to figure out a way to build some affordable units back into the equation of developers,” Teague said. “It’s something we feel like the development community should help us with.”

The affordable housing set-aside would be around 8-10% of the total units. Not enough that developers would balk, but enough to make a dent at least.

“Philosophically, I think it is a wonderful idea. We are in dire need of affordable housing, period,” said Barbara Thomas, a Waynesville planning board member.

Buy-out option

The concept isn’t new in larger areas. Asheville has required an affordable housing set-aside by developers for years. Most policies give developers an out with a “fee in lieu” option, however.

“A developer who doesn’t want to deal with affordable housing can pay out essentially,” Teague said.

The monetary payment goes into a trust fund that’s used for other affordable housing initiatives.

“It is a common way to balance community interests,” said Waynesville Planning Board Chairwoman Susan Teas Smith. “You can say to the developer ‘We want you to either set aside a certain proportion of the units for people at a certain income level, or in lieu of doing that, you can contribute money to a fund.’”

The fund could then be tapped by other affordable housing projects, be it Habitat for Humanity or the Smoky Mountain Housing Coalition, an affordable housing arm of Mountain Projects.

“We want to work with our community partners and not create something that’s redundant,” Teague said.

Changing landscape

Three years ago, Waynesville tried to incentivize developers to voluntarily build affordable housing. The incentive policy offers various cash and infrastructure grants for affordable housing developments.

But the incentives have been formally tapped only once since then, namely a project by Haywood Habitat for Humanity.

A pseudo version of the policy was negotiated with the developers of a 210-unit apartment complex at the former BI-LO grocery site. They agreed to set aside 20 units for “moderate-income” renters as part of a larger deal that also includes deeding creek-front property for a greenway in exchange for property tax breaks.

Two other affordable housing projects have applied for and were awarded incentives, but they haven’t yet to come to fruition.

Despite some movement, the incentives haven’t garnered as much traction as hoped. At the time, the idea of a mandated set-aside was floated, but rejected in favor of the voluntary approach.

“We aren’t quite there yet,” then-Mayor Gavin Brown said.

Flash forward three years, when rents and home prices have sky-rocketed, driven largely by a population influx and overflow from the Asheville housing market that has skewed supply-and-demand.

“At the time, I don’t think people were ready to put a mandate like that on development. But I do think the context and environment has changed so greatly,” Teague said. “We want to make sure in all this growth, there are opportunities for working people to find affordable housing.”

Too late?

In the past three years, three major apartment complexes, a duplex and a townhome development, three senior housing projects, and a high-density subdivision have come before the town of Waynesville for zoning approval.

Two more major projects are slated to come before the planning board later this month — bringing the tally to more than 1,100 new units in all.

With so many development projects already in the pipeline, it begs the question: is it too late? Has the build out already happened?

“I think they will keep coming,” said Thomas. “I think this is just the beginning.”

Regardless, Teague said it’s still worth trying, citing the starfish fable where a storm washed thousands of starfish up on the beach.

“A little boy was going along throwing them back, when a man said ‘Son, you are wasting your time. You will never be able to save all these starfish.’ He said ‘I know, but I am going to save this one’ as he tossed one back in the sea.”

How it would work

The logistics of the affordable housing requirement are still being hashed out by the planning board. What’s the threshold for when it kicks in, in terms of the development’s density and size? What percentage of units should be set-aside as affordable housing? How many years would those units have to remain at an affordable rate? What would the “fee in lieu” amount be?

“That would all have to be decided as we move through this process,” said Teas Smith.

One option being considered is a sliding scale to determine the set-aside percentage. Projects with a higher density would have to set aside a greater percentage than those with fewer units per acre.

Likewise, those that go above and beyond the required set-aside could be granted higher density.

“We could give them an additional density bonus for exceeding that minimum,” Teague said.

One of the complexities is what to do about developments where the units are sold to owners rather than rented.

“It works for rental properties, but for properties you sell, it becomes a little bit trickier,” Teague said. “We are trying to figure out how that would work.”